Flog a Pro: Would You Turn the First Page of this Bestseller?

Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

Here’s the question:

Would you pay good money to read the rest of the chapter? With 50 chapters in a book that costs $15, each chapter would be “worth” 30 cents.

So, before you read the excerpt, take 30 cents from your pocket or purse. When you’re done, decide what to do with those three dimes or the quarter and a nickel. It’s not much, but think of paying 30 cents for the rest of the chapter every time you sample a book’s first page. In a sense, time is money for a literary agent working her way through a raft of submissions, and she is spending that resource whenever she turns a page.

Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre or content—some reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good-enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.

How strong is the opening page of this novel—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it was submitted by an unpublished writer?

Late March in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains wasn’t yet spring by any means, but there were a growing number of days when spring could be dreamt of.

For Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, this wasn’t one of those days. This was a day that would both start and end with blood on the snow.

At midday, he climbed out of the cab of his replacement green Ford F-150 pickup and pulled on coveralls and a winter parka over his red uniform shirt and wool Filson vest. He’d had the foresight to layer up that morning before leaving his house, and he was also wearing merino wool long johns and thick wool socks. He buckled knee-high nylon gaiters over his lace-up Sorel pack boots, then placed his hat crown-down on the dashboard and replaced it with a thick wool rancher’s cap with the earflaps down.

On the open tailgate of his vehicle, he filled a light daypack with gear: water, snowshoes, camera, necropsy kit, extra ammo, ticket book, binoculars, sat phone. While he did so, he shot a glance at the storm cloud shrouding the mountains and muting the sun. A significant “weather event” had been predicted by the National Weather Service for southern Montana and northern Wyoming. Joe didn’t question it. It felt like snow was coming, maybe a lot of it, and he needed to find an injured elk cow and put her out of her misery before the storm roared down from those mountains and engulfed him.

Were you moved to want more?

  • No, my need to know about wool socks is totally satisfied. (80%, 125 Votes)
  • Yep, I’m gearing up to hunt elk and this is very stimulating. (20%, 31 Votes)

Total Voters: 156

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You can turn the page and read more here. Kindle users can request a sample sent to their devices, and I’ve found this to be a great way to evaluate a narrative that is borderline on the first page and see if it’s worth my coin.

This novel was number one on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for March 19, 2023. Were the opening pages of the first chapter of Storm Watch by C.J. Box compelling?

My vote: Nope.

This book received 4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon. If I’m counting correctly, it is novel number twenty-three in this character’s series. So, looking at the opening page, I’m thinking it’s the long tail of those previous twenty-two books that gives it high ratings on Amazon.

I say that because, for me, these opening lines—except for the blood on the snow tease—bogged down and then died in a swamp of useless detail. How does it matter to the story what brand of vest he’s wearing, or that he’s wearing “merino” wool long johns? (Did you know that the marino reference is to wool from Marino sheep, as if that matters to the story?) Or that he’s buckling on knee-high nylon gaiters over his Sorel brand boots? I certainly wouldn’t wear anything but nylon for my gaiters. Or any of the rest of that long list of minutia that has no impact on story. If I’m to face more useless narrative in this book, count me out. He can put that elk cow out of misery with a bullet, I can put me out of it by not turning the page.

I salute Mr. Box’s success, and wish I had the same. I also wish he had written the kind of strong, question-raising narrative that he exhibits in the opening of his first novel in this series, Open Season–I checked it out, and it was good. Your thoughts?

You’re invited to a flogging—your own You see here the insights fresh eyes bring to the performance of bestseller first pages, so why not do the same with the opening of your WIP? Submit your prologue/first chapter to my blog, Flogging the Quill, and I’ll give you my thoughts and even a little line editing if I see a need. And the readers of FtQ are good at offering constructive notes, too. Hope to see you there.

To submit, email your first chapter or prologue (or both) as an attachment to me, and let me know if it’s okay to use your first page and to post the complete chapter.


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